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The ‘Cummings’ and goings of a Downing Street Chief of Staff
Last week was quite the week. The pace of it all (rumoured appointments turning to unexpected resignations, and briefed resignations turning into snap ones) has been dizzying. By Friday, the BBC were finding themselves breaking the news of Dominic Cummings’ (Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister) resignation (scheduled for December) being brought forward. This follows a day earlier in the week where Lee Cain (Downing Street Director of Communications) was being heavily tipped as the PM’s new Chief-of-Staff, only for the same day to end in Cain announcing his intention to also leave at Christmas. He’s now gone, too. In the words of Tom Lehrer, ‘I hope that you’re all following this because there’ll be a short quiz afterwards’!
I previously examined the role of a Chief-of-Staff in a 2018 ‘blog for the PSA. The Chief-of-Staff role is becoming ever more a key aspect of British politics. In the Downing Street terms, the functions of the role include: oversight of the Downing Street staff; being a senior spokesperson for the Prime Minister; ensuring that the internal governmental machinery (the political, rather than Civil Service, side) fulfils the PM’s need for information and, finally; the gatekeeper function alluded to by Whipple. We might regard these as the essential aspects of the job, with incumbents placing their interpretations upon how far the role allowed them to insert themselves into policy-making and strategy formulation.
This role is now reaching its twenty-fifth anniversary, with the most recent Chiefs having had a bumpier ride. Jonathan Powell (1997-2007) gave Tony Blair 10 solid years of uninterrupted service. His book makes clear that this involved combining a desire to help the Prime Minister deliver his public service reform agenda (and a role in the Northern Ireland negotiations) with being a Blairite outrider in the war with Brown’s treasury. Gordon Brown largely went without a Chief, initially seeing dispensing with the role as an example of moving on from Blair.
Tom Scholar, now Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, briefly fulfilled this brief as part of an enhancement of his role as Brown’s Principal Private Secretary (2007-2008). Nevertheless, Brown’s often dysfunctional Downing Street operation largely went without a definitive Chief – a reality that both Anthony Seldon, Andrew Rawnsley and Steve Richards have all since contended enhanced precisely that dysfunctionality. By contrast, David Cameron favoured a return to the Chief-of-Staff model, bringing in the experienced diplomat Ed Llewellyn (who essentially ran the internal machinery as a co-Chief model, with Kate Fall). Fall’s book on this period is highly – giving a strong sense of Cameron’s reliance on the Llewellyn-Fall partnership for attempting to structure life during the ups and downs of his premiership.
Since 2016, the role of Downing Street Chief-of-Staff has become a much more public one. In July 2016, Theresa May appointed Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill (former advisors during her tenure as Home Secretary) to be co-Chiefs. A telling BBC Radio 4 profile of them from October 2016 saw former colleagues and political journalists suggest that their no nonsense approach might lead them to become isolated from others and end in them over-reaching themselves. Within eight months of that, they were out, blamed for an election campaign that was felt to exemplify precisely some of those faults. Their successor, Gavin Barwell, fared better. He enabled his boss to create bridges into Parliament (at least in the short-term) and managed to keep himself largely out of the political limelight. As I said in my previous ‘blog on Chiefs, ‘A good chief-of-staff becomes adept at using power behind the scenes on their leader’s behalf. A better one does it without constantly stamping their name all over the operation.’
This need to not be the story – to not distract from your boss’ own profile – cannot be said to have been Cummings’ experience. Officially not a Chief-of-Staff, he nonetheless clearly came to be the dominant force amongst Johnson’s advisors. Hardly a week seemed to go by without Cummings being a story in his own right. In May of this year, he was the story, following newspaper revelations of his breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules.
This is counter-balanced, however, by the example of Johnson’s other uppermost advisor – Sir Eddie Lister. He was Johnson’s former Chief (and Deputy Mayor for Operations) when the Prime Minister was previously Mayor of London. As another Radio 4 profile recently suggested, Lister is much less keen on public attention than Cummings but remains an effective operator. Guto Hari, Mayor Johnson’s Communications Director, describes Lister as a ‘practical and pragmatic “rock” in No. 10 (one of the few who doesn’t carry baggage, [and] doesn’t make enemies’.
Lister, Johnson’s Chief Strategic Advisor until last week (and now Acting Chief-of-Staff) doesn’t, however, want to stay. Now in the Lords, he’s seeking to retire from frontline politics, so is unlikely to be the person Johnson is now seeking to fill the void. So, who might Johnson choose? Various names have been doing the rounds. Sajid Javid, Munira Mirza and Lord Feldman have all been repeatedly tipped for the role. However, the smart money seems to be coalescing around Nikki da Costa (formerly Legislative Director to both Johnson and Theresa May). The Mirror, the Evening Standard and the Telegraph have all tipped her as a frontrunner in the past week. Her previous work in legislative affairs may make her well-placed (Barwell-like) to help her boss rebuild relationships with his increasingly-fractious backbenchers.
Whoever is chosen, they will need to be able to quickly establish a close and trusting relationship with both Johnson and the wider government (officials and ministers). In the US, the White House Chief-of-Staff is often referred to as the second-most powerful person in Washington D.C., given their proximity to the President and authorisation to act on their behalf. Indeed, Admiral William D. Leahy (the first White House Chief – under Franklin D. Roosevelt) has since been immortalised as the second-most powerful man in Roosevelt-era Washington D.C. by his biographer, Phillips Payson O’Brien. More recently, Chris Whipple (whose account of the modern White House Chiefs is highly recommended) recalled how H. R. Haldeman (Nixon’s Chief) famously described the purpose of his role as being ‘the president’s son-of-a-bitch.’ So, an important and close relationship!
Consider President-Elect Biden’s own appointment, last week. He chose Ron Klain, a seasoned political operator who he’s worked with for years (right back to his time in the Senate), to be his Chief. In the US, this is an even bigger role (carrying with it a quasi-cabinet status). His maintenance of a long-standing relationship with Biden means that Klain is likely to last longer than President Trump’s chiefs (he’s got through four, in as many years). Given the likely ongoing fractiousness of the transition, having a strong figure in place to enable the new White House to hit the ground running is more essential than normal.
Altogether, this suggests that the Chief-of-Staff role is not only one with an important history but, also, one that continues to matter. From the UK to the US, leaders have always needed advisors – whether they be quiet functionaries or more Machiavellian individuals. Cummings’ and Cain’s departures offer up a rare opportunity for a Prime Minister to reset their own internal operation and governing culture. Likewise, in Washington D.C., Klain’s arrival provides the chance to quickly embed a new administration that has founded its reputation on both experience and being different to the haphazard nature of Trump’s government. The comings and goings of all of this can make the current political climate feel tempestuous, to say the least. What doesn’t change, however, is the need for a reliable port in that storm. That port is called a Chief and their reliability becomes ever more priceless.
Max Stafford is currently Lecturer in British Politics at De Montfort University and a member of the PSA. He researches into political leadership (UK, US and Western Europe), particularly with regard to consideration of new methodologies for approaching leadership assessments. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr.